This really is the end of college athletics as we know it.
But that doesn’t mean what many believe it to mean.
The panic that has surrounded college athletics within the past week began with a prediction from a sitting athletic director that the breakup of Division I was “inevitable”, escalated when a representative of a third-team All-ACC guard attempted to judge the young man’s NIL deal and crescendoed when it was revealed an All-American wide receiver might choose to transfer because of the potential to accept a multi-million-dollar offer.
I don’t want to be hysterical and call it hysteria, but the overreaction to what has developed in college sports as the result of the Name/Image/Likeness rights athletes now are free to monetize and immediate eligibility for transfers has been astounding to watch . The red lights began to flash and the mechanical arms swung down to block the road. Who didn’t understand a train was coming?
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CBS college football analyst Aaron Taylor posted a video on Twitter declaring, “What’s taking place right now, behind the scenes in the NIL world, is despicable.” That a strong term to use, suggesting someone or something is being aggrieved by these developments, but I’m struggling to understand who or what.
Dear College Football: pic.twitter.com/7YU3wAhGXV
— Aaron Taylor (@AaronTaylorCFB) April 30, 2022
Radio and podcast host Jake Crain said in his video post, “We should have a cap on NIL in general. But putting in specific rules or caps on NIL deals after a transfer would calm down this so-called black market.” That sounds nice, but it’s as realistic as me filming a video and posting it to social media saying, “Give all the NIL money to me. That’ll fix everything.”
College athletics has changed in the past year. That is beyond doubt, but the calamity about which so many warns is based on adherence to the past rather than clarity regarding the future. Much of what we are hearing about the new world is rooted in longstanding assumptions about the public’s preference for amateur sports, but I covered my 32nd Final Four this month and saw no difference in the way the games were contested or appreciated. I did not see any players with money falling out of their socks – and I had a great seat – but rather some fabulous games in front of an audience of roughly 70,000.
1. The NCAA can’t fix this. One can accurately excoriate the NCAA for its failures to recognize the impending NIL revolution. It had the opportunity in 2014 to discuss a settlement with the class in the O’Bannon case that would have presented a road map of sorts for how to incorporate the concept into the operation of college athletics and to build a set of rules around it. The NCAA declined to take the meeting, went to court and lost. And here we are.
The NCAA assigned a working group to examine NIL in 2019, chaired by Big East commissioner Val Ackerman and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, and they produced a mostly reasonable set of recommendations. By then, however, too many states had already been prepared to pass their own NIL laws, and last summer’s Alston decision, which the NCAA lost by a 9-0 margin at the Supreme Court, rendered the NCAA powerless to act on Name/Image /Likeness. There is a movement by some administrators to investigate and possibly punish schools whose affiliated collectives were too active in recruiting. But one of two things will happen: Those investigations will show the collective members stayed on the proper side of the blurred line, or any punishments administered will wind up destroyed in court.
The only body that can change what is in place is the United States Congress. That’s not an impossibility, but such laws are nowhere close to being passed.
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2. “Professionalizing” isn’t coming soon. It probably won’t be the colleges’ choice whether to take the step of paying their athletes directly, not if a group eventually is successful at organizing a bargaining unit and negotiating an agreement.
For as long as it takes for that to happen – and it will not be easy because of the transitory nature of college athletes – the colleges are unlikely to rush into such an arrangement. Because paying the athletes in the big moneymaking sports of football and men’s basketball also means having to pay those in other sports.
Under this arrangement, they stand aside and allow the payments to come from people and organizations that are close to the schools, which means fewer complications in terms of equity. The boosters who are part of NIL collectives are deciding which of the university’s athletes or recruits get paid, and how much. That may be complicated, and at times unstable, but imagine how much more challenging it will be if the institutions are required to make those choices.
3. Competitive balance is not endangered. To accept that something is imperiled, one first must believe that thing exists. The unicorn is not endangered. It is a fantasy, an object conjured a millennium ago and kept alive only through art and legend.
Competitive balance in what? In football competition? The College Football Playoff has existed since 2014, with a format of four teams competing for the title by invitation. In that time, 65 percent of those tournament berths have been presented to the same four programs: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma.
What sort of balance is that? Surely it’s possible the NIL world will include a correction of this. It can’t make the competition any less even. Most of the recent commotion involves the possibility USC might acquire new talent. If that occurs and the athletes succeed at a high level, that immediately would make college football more competitive than it’s been.
If the argument is that schools outside the elite leagues won’t be able to compete with the powerhouses, that supposes they ever could.
In men’s basketball, the Miami Hurricanes will have a new point guard after Kansas State transfer Nigel Pack signed an NIL deal with LifeWallet, a company run by a Canes booster. Miami has reached exactly one Elite Eight in its history, which came just last month.
Before NIL became a possibility, either Kentucky or Duke gathered the No. 1 recruiting class 11 times in 11 years. That led to one NCAA title for each, while Villanova and Connecticut each won two and the rest were split among five other schools. There seems to be no competitive balance issue at all.
4. This is sustainable. One of the most common criticisms of the current NIL landscape is that it’s “not sustainable.” I mean, those are the hottest two words in the English language since “Poker Face”.
How is it not sustainable? Are we to suppose college athletics as a going concern will collapse because athletes now are being paid by outside groups? That’s a ridiculous assertion.
If one contends this is not sustainable because those funding the NIL collectives will pull of doing so, well, many of those same people haven’t yet tired of funding coach buyouts, have they? They most often are the ones agitating for the coaches to be fired and routinely have volunteered to pay those coaches to go away.
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The world of college athletics is unlikely to look like this for long. There will be changes, adjustments and possibly congressional action. But there will be no caps on NIL earnings. There are no caps in how much a coach can earn, or an assistant coach, or an athletic director. There is no justification for doing this with athletes. There will be no rejection of the “collective” concept unless the government declares it should be so. There will be no movement toward professionalizing these sports unless the athletes force it to happen.
As ESPN analyst David Pollack said, NIL stands for: Now it’s legal.